The campaign to protect unroaded forests gets torn apart by a Wyoming judge in 'half-assed retirement'

  • Cindy Wehling photo illustration; Istock photos
  • The watershed of Oregon's Rogue River includes roadless areas protected by Clinton's rule.

    Dang Ngo/Zuma Press
  • Wyoming federal judge Clarence Brimmer Jr. found that Clinton's rule was illegally rigged -- infuriating environmentalists.

    Todd Newcomer
  • The campaign persuaded more than a million people to send boilerplate comments to the Clinton administration on postcards like the one at left and mass e-mails and faxes. More than 80,000 people signed petitions circulated by Aveda, a company that makes eco-friendly beauty products and works with salons nationwide. This year, the campaign is urging the Obama administration to back Clinton's rule, by sending more mass e-mails and running ads during last spring's NCAA basketball tournament calling for a "Time Out!" on activities in roadless areas.

  • Ken Rait, a skilled politico based in Oregon, ran Pew Charitable Trust's Heritage Forests Campaign from 1997 until the Clinton roadless rule was finalized in 2001. Now he's campaigns director for another Pew-funded group, the Campaign for America's Wilderness.

  • George T. Frampton Jr. ran The Wilderness Society from 1986 to 1993, then pushed for the roadless rule within the Clinton White House as head of the Council on Environmental Quality. He's now a corporate lawyer working on clean energy issues.

  • Mike Dombeck was the U.S. Forest Service Chief from 1997 to 2001, overseeing the roadless rule process. He's now a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He's also been a National Wildlife Federation board member.


Also see sidebars:

The Wicked Witch of the West

The roadless rule ground game


The environmentalists' boogeyman walks with tiny, uncertain steps. He's 87 years old, suffers from an arthritic knee and worries about stumbling and falling down. He's also slowly shrinking -- he lost an inch and 24 pounds over the last three years, so now he's only 5 feet 6 and 120 pounds. But today he's looking flashy, spicing up his beige suit with a nicely coordinated daffodil-yellow shirt and an amber-hued bow tie.

The Honorable Clarence Addison Brimmer Jr., federal judge for the district of Wyoming, speaks softly and carefully even when kidding around. Don't call him Clarence, he says. "Guys who are named Clarence always have a nickname. It's just one of those things -- a cross I have to bear. ... 'Bud' -- that's been my nickname for a hundred years, that's what my mother called me."

He's supposedly on "senior status" in his judicial duties –– "a fancy name for half-assed retirement," he says. But on this sunny September day, he's in his courthouse office, still handling a full case load.

And that's too bad for the environmental movement. Brimmer gained notoriety through court decisions that spurned many green ambitions over the years, including the spread of wolves, grazing restrictions and Yellowstone snowmobile regulations. Even when other judges overrule his decisions, he undercuts the environmentalists' campaigns.

Frail though he appears, now Brimmer is closing in on a major kill. He's determined to wipe out what environmentalists call "the most significant land conservation initiative in nearly a century": the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Imposed by the Clinton administration in 2001, the rule protected 58.5 million acres of national forest, mostly in the West -- the wildest portions that were not already designated wilderness. Clinton's rule has since been shoved around by the Bush and Obama administrations, various courts and state governments. People argue whether it still protects all the acres it originally did, or only some or none. Regardless, it's earned superlatives -- especially for how the enviros pulled it off.

It was simply "the most extensive national environmental Campaign yet waged in the United States, combining grass-roots organizing in nearly every state; massive infusions of philanthropic support; support from hunters and anglers; religious leaders, scientists, and the outdoor recreation industry; relentless lobbying of Congress and the executive branch; and complex and extremely long-lived litigation," writes Earthjustice's Tom Turner in his recent book, Roadless Rules: The Struggle for the Last Wild Forests.

Brimmer has issued a series of rulings against the roadless rule, most recently last June, when he reaffirmed his nationwide injunction against it. Enviros and the Obama administration appealed that decision, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver will soon begin weighing arguments on the case. The U.S. Congress and the states are also reacting to Brimmer's decision.

In a typical dismissal of Brimmer, an Ivy League enviro lawyer calls him "a crazy rightwing judge for whom reality is irrelevant."

But a closer look reveals things that the environmentalists might rather keep under wraps. The details behind the making of the rule, along with the PR campaign, demonstrate how all interest groups -- from liberal enviros to libertarian Tea Partiers -- carry out their goals using a mix of idealism, cynicism and brute-force politics.

Brimmer believes the roadless rule was created in a sneaky, illegal way. And he says, "I feel we have to play the cards face up."

Things that make me go hmmm...
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Nov 03, 2009 01:36 PM
So, let me get this straight.

In this article, Ray Ring goes off about how the Roadless Rule process was supposedly so bad and rigged.

Yet, just a few months ago we got a Ray Ring/HCN BJ piece on how great the Beaverhead Partnership Strategy/Process (and the resulting Sen Tester Logging Bill) is? A process that since it started in winter of 2005/2006 has been dogged by exclusive, secret meetings and confidentially agreements? A Wilderness/Logging bill complete with:

Congressionally mandated logging at a point when lumber demand in America is down 55% and not expected to jump for at least 3 more years; violations of NEPA that make a mockery of any semblance of an open, inclusive, transparent public lands management process; releasing of Wilderness Study Areas set aside by MT Sen. Lee Metcalf in 1977; allowing military helicopters to land in Wilderness (for the first time ever); and hollow promises that logging will pay for restoration?

Talk about irony and hypocrisy.
Sharon Friedman
Sharon Friedman
Nov 03, 2009 02:43 PM
Matt- It is interesting that you are not questioning the facts that Ring points out, but that fairness is good and should be applied everywhere.. who could argue with that?

Bret Beede
Bret Beede
Nov 04, 2009 02:22 PM
Matt - it's called journalism...not hypocrisy. As I read it, Ray Ring doesn't “go off” about how the “Roadless Rule process was supposedly so bad and rigged” as you insinuate, he merely gives an objective report of the issues and politics entwined in it. I think it was a great piece of journalism by Mr. Ring. It is refreshing to read an article in HCN where the elements of journalism were at least attempted and moderately free of media bias. I value the opportunity to view an argument fairly and honestly on both sides of an issue and form my own conclusion rather than jump on the rhetorical bandwagon.
Who you gonna call?
Terra Veritas
Terra Veritas
Nov 03, 2009 04:26 PM
Ray- if westerners need a voice in determining the nature of roadlessness, as many of the people in your story attest- and if the folks in Colorado (where HCN is located) have been working on developing a rule for, I think, about four years now (compared to 15 months), why, O. why is the only person you quoted from Pew? in DC?

I have to say I feel kind of sorry for the folks in Paonia, the State of Colorado (currently Dems, by the way) lined up against the juggernaut of national groups including the extremely well-funded Pew. It's the roadless David and Goliath- and I have to say that national interest groups determining that State folks deciding about a rule- even in a D administration in the State- must be wrong regardless of outcome (remember, there's D's in DC as well), it's immensely puzzling.

there has never been a perfect piece of public policy so improvements can't be made- even with D's in control? what is that about?

I can't quite grasp the ideology, unless it's unequivocal colonialism.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Nov 04, 2009 10:10 AM
I would be glad to quote Coloradoans about their negotiations, but I didn't have room for it, and my writing supports the general idea of Coloradoans negotiating so a quote would've been redundant.
more comments
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Nov 09, 2009 09:20 AM
Fine to comment here ... and if you'd like to be among many commenters reacting to an HCN online poll about the story (not my poll) check